Buying and Grilling Steaks
The cut, how much you like it done, and the best way to cook it are all related. The supermarket meat counter— I mean a good one with an in-store butcher—offers many different steaks. Understanding where they come from on the cow goes a long way to choosing the right one for different occasions. Those cut from muscles on the back and backbone (like the rib-eye, strip, tenderloin, and porterhouse) get less of a workout and are the most tender and mild tasting. Those from active abdomen and hind sections (like flank, skirt, and sirloin) have more chew and can be more flavorful.
Most steak lovers want marbling—that interior lacework of fat that melts during cooking to deliver the rich, silky, beefy experience you expect from steak. Strip and rib-eye— from the same section of the cow as prime rib, only cut between the ribs and sold with or without the bones—are both tender and well marbled. Tenderloin has next to no marbling but its texture is super-soft (some say too much so) and puts up little resistance when you take a bite. Not surprisingly, these are the most expensive steaks.
Other cuts offer more value and excellent eating, so I urge you to venture out of your comfort zone. Try less familiar cuts like hanger steak (the classic cut for making steak frites), flat iron steak (with its unique geometric shape), tri-tip (cut from one of the sirloin roasts popular for regional California barbecue), and cap steak (a somewhat hard-to-find by-product of cutting boneless rib-eyes). You can even have success with oddball arm and blade steaks as long as you cut around the inconvenient strips of gristle. But some cuts—like chuck and round steaks—are deceiving and won’t be tender after quick grilling. Instead they require lots of cooking time or pounding (or both); or they can work cut in small pieces and skewered.
For some grillers, a perfect steak is “black and blue”: charred on the outside and raw enough on the inside to slightly blue-tinged and still cold from the refrigerator. For others, it’s medium-well done—not a trace of pink inside but ideally still fairly moist. I won’t acknowledge well-done steaks as desirable; if you think that’s what you like, try pulling them from the fire just a couple minutes earlier and see if they aren’t better. And everyone else falls somewhere within that spectrum from red to pinkish gray.
If you’re grilling black-and-blue steaks, they should be at least an inch thick, and go from fridge to fire interrupted only by a sprinkle of salt and pepper. (Better yet, put them in the freezer for 30 minutes or so right before grilling.) That initial chill provides a bit of protection against overcooking. Other than that, the temperature of steak when it hits the grill doesn’t make a ton of difference: Inch-thick pieces of meat cook quickly no matter what, and thicker pieces require both direct and indirect fire.
About that fire: Get it as hot as your equipment can manage—500°F or above if possible. For 1-inch-thick black-and-blue, rare, or medium-rare steaks, make a direct fire. For thicker cuts or cooking beyond that doneness, you need both hot and cool zones .
A true black-and-blue steak is a challenge met only with a screaming hot fire. When cooking with charcoal, if you can, shorten the distance between the grates and the coals. With gas, let the grill fully heat. When the grill hits peak temperature, take the steaks out of the fridge, blot them with paper towels, season on both sides with salt and pepper, and get them over the hottest spot of the fire. With gas, put the lid down since the heat will dissipate and the inside won’t cook too fast; for charcoal, keep the lid off for the opposite reason. To keep the inside from cooking, sear the steaks for no more than 2 minutes per side then get them off the grill and check; they should be eaten before carryover heat cooks the meat further.
For rare and medium-rare steaks, start a direct fire—anything over 450°F will do the trick. The idea is to develop a crusty exterior on the steaks, without burning, in the time it takes the interior to cook the way you want it.
Steaks taken beyond medium-rare require searing over direct fire, then finishing over indirect heat. This gives you more control of both the internal temperature and the exterior charring so that the meat is still moist even when there’s little or no pink at the center. You can and should be prepared to move the steaks around and check frequently. For 1-inch-thick cuts, start with 3 minutes searing per side before moving the steaks to the indirect portion of the grill; thicker pieces will require more time.